James Maxey: Bitterwood

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James Maxey Bitterwood
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    Bitterwood
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    Английский
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Bitterwood

James Maxey


PROLOG


PART ONE: SEED

1070 D.A. (Dragon Age), the 39th Year of the Reign of Albekizan

FRESHLY PLOWED EARTH and the perfume of women scented the night air. Naked, Bant scurried along the furrows, crouching low as he made his way toward the orchard. All around him women sang out and men grunted with pleasure. Bant strained his eyes in the darkness, fearing that any second some white arm might snake out of the moonless night and pull him close, demanding from him that which was Recanna’s.

As he reached the far end of the field, the sounds of passion grew more distant. The black shadows of the peach orchard loomed before him. He paused at the edge of the trees, warmed by the rising heat of the earth, awash in the sweet scent of newly opened blossoms.

“Recanna?” he whispered.

He leaned forward, listening for any faint sound. Behind him, he heard the distant laughter of a woman. He ducked his head and stepped into the orchard, inching forward, his arms held before him. Under the low, thick canopy of the boughs, even the dim starlight vanished. He saw no sign of his beloved. Had she decided not to come? Worse, had someone else caught her as she traveled through the fields? In theory, on the Night of the Sowing, women were free to choose any partner they wished. In practice, no woman could ever refuse any man of the village on this night; to do so would be an insult to the Goddess.

Bant was only fifteen, Recanna fourteen, and this was the first time each had participated in the sowing, the rite of spring practiced in honor of the Goddess Ashera. They had waited a lifetime for this night. If all their whispered plans and shared dreams were to come to nothing now… It was too terrible to contemplate.

“Recanna?” he said again, louder, almost a shout. He held his breath to listen for her reply. His heart sounded like a drum in his ears.

At last, her faint voice answered, “Here.”

He crept toward the sound. Bant was all but blind beneath the branches. For a second he thought he saw her slender form in the darkness, a black shape against a gray background. When he drew nearer he saw it was only the trunk of a tree. Then her soft, cool hand closed around his and pulled him to her.

She was naked, of course. From sunset to sunrise on this night, it would be a sin to allow cloth to touch her body. Her soft skin pressed against his. He felt as if he’d slipped into dream. He wrapped her in his arms, holding her tightly, trembling with joy. He leaned and pressed his lips to her neck, nibbling her, breathing in the rich aroma of her hair. Then he moved his mouth to seek her lips. But she turned her face and his lips fell on her cheek, which was wet, and salty. She shuddered. He realized she was crying.

“What’s wrong?” he whispered, rubbing her back.

“This,” she said, sounding frightened. “Us. Bant, I love you, but… but we shouldn’t be here. I’m afraid.”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Bant said, stroking her hair. “As you say, you love me. I love you. Nothing done in love should cause fear.”

She swallowed hard. She was still crying.

“Everything’s all right,” he said, wiping her tears.

“No,” she said. “I know I agreed to this. But, at the ritual, the women who prepared me for the sowing kept talking about the Goddess. They kept telling me of my duty.”

“Damn duty,” Bant said, grabbing her shoulders and looking her in the eyes. “We’ve waited so long. I won’t share you with the others. I can’t.”

“But it’s the Night of the Sowing. The Goddess is good to us. She makes the orchards blossom and the crops sprout. All that she asks in return is this one night of-”

“Hush,” Bant said, placing his fingers on her lips. “The old women have really scared you, haven’t they? Where’s the Recanna I knew just yesterday, the girl so intent on following her own heart?”

“But…” she said.

“There will be other sowings,” he said. “There will be time enough for duty.”

“But-”

Bant pulled her to him, silencing her with his lips. Despite the warmth of the night, her naked body was cold and she shivered as he embraced her. He ran his hands along her skin, warming her. He continued kissing her until her lips grew softer, and she opened her mouth to his. She cautiously placed her gentle fingers against his hips. Her skin, chilled only moments before, flushed with heat. She moaned softly, and pulled him closer. They fell to the earth together, the soil warm and yielding beneath Bant’s back.

For the first time Bant understood the deeper meaning of the sowing, the powerful connection between the seasons of the world and the passions of the body. He felt as if he were a part of the earth, a thing of rich loam and hard rock. Recanna’s breath against his lips was as sweet and life-giving as the spring breeze. Their defiance of the traditions of the village no longer mattered. There was only lingering, sensual tension of the now.

Then, with a gasp, Recanna turned her head and pushed Bant away. She rose to her knees.

“What?” Bant asked, sitting up and raising his hand toward her. “What’s wrong?”

“Look,” she said, pushing his hand away. “The road.”

Far beyond the trees, a single lantern flickered on the distant road, breaking the sacred darkness of the sowing. Who would approach the town on this of all nights? A murmur rose from the nearby fields. They were not the only village folk to have spotted this sacrilege of light.

“It’s an omen,” Recanna said, her voice once more fearful. “We’ve angered the Goddess. What have we done?”

“W-we… ” Bant’s argument trailed into silence. No one would dare light even a candle on the Night of the Sowing. The Goddess graced this night with a perfect blanket of darkness. Had he risked too much?

A snap of a twig nearby raised the hair on his neck. Someone else was in the orchard. By now, his eyes were better adjusted to the gloom. Recanna’s pale skin almost glowed. But looking around, all he could see were the silhouettes of the tree trunks. Anyone could be hiding. Then one of the dark shapes broke free from the others and moved closer. Bant jumped as a deep, beefy voice shouted, “Runt!”

Bant knew the voice well. Even in the gloom, the hulking shape of his older brother Jomath was unmistakable. Jomath was two years older than Bant, but a giant by comparison, a foot taller and with thick muscular arms. Bant had always been a target of his brother’s bullying. But, if the light on the road presaged something dangerous, it was good that he was here.

“Jomath,” Bant said. “I’m relieved it’s you. What do you think the light on the road is?”

“Who cares?” Jomath said, striding boldly forward and placing a callused hand around Recanna’s frail arm. “Some lost fool, no doubt. Not my concern. What concerns me is to see you and this lovely morsel breaking the commandments. Do you think I’ve been blind to your plotting?”

“Ow,” said Recanna. “You’re hurting me.”

“You deserve to be hurt. The commandment is that any woman shall lay with any man on the Night of Sowing. Defiance of this is a great sin. I’m here to save you from your folly.”

“Let her go,” Bant said, leaping to his feet. “She’s in love with me, not you.”

“To speak of love is blasphemy,” Jomath said, pushing Bant back with one hand while continuing to hold onto Recanna’s arm. “There’s no place for such refinement on the Night of Sowing. The Goddess commands all of nature, and tonight we are reminded that we are part of that nature. We leave behind our daily roles to become the animals we truly are. It’s a woman’s duty to submit to any man who wants her. I’ve waited a long time for Recanna to come of age. It’s time for me to teach her the sacred lesson of the Goddess.”

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